The U.S. Army: Pumping Iron

September 29th, 2009 in Military History by Frank Chadwick

Focus: What Makes An Army Great? Part I

Many things contribute to combat effectiveness. But when people make up lists of what makes one army significantly more capable than another, one thing is overlooked: muscles.

Back when armies relied on muscles for the lethal power behind a spear or sword, the need for physical strength was obvious. The advent of gunpowder made it less so, the firearm often called the “great equalizer,” making size and physical strength irrelevant. In an individual fight that might be so, but in carrying out a military operation it was much less true.

In late World War I, one of the reasons the Germans were unable to sustain a major offensive was the physical weakness of their infantry. The elite Stosstrupen who spearheaded their 1918 offensive were chosen as much for physical strength and stamina as for combat experience, and the key to their effectiveness was the extra rations given them. By the same token, the physical condition of arriving U.S. troops had as much to do with their ability to carry through sustained offensives as their training and leadership.

In World War II the Germans considered their mountain divisions the elite of their infantry forces because of their superb physical condition. All members of the division were experienced pre-war skiers, and in 1930s Europe anyone who skied regularly was in outstanding shape. Why? No powered ski lifts. Try walking up a mountain every time you want to ski down and see how strong your legs and lungs get in a few years. That’s part of the reason the only U.S. mountain division in the war – the 10th – was also an elite outfit.

Why is physical conditioning so important?

A soldier has to carry his weapon and a lot of ammunition if he wants to remain lethal over time in a fire fight. He has to move quickly with all that gear, and he has to keep moving – that requires enormous stamina. And just moving isn’t enough. He has to remain mentally alert as well, both to recognize emerging threats and to respond to changing tactical situations with agility. Since physical fatigue produces mental sluggishness, a soldier has to have terrific reserves of endurance to keep performing at or near his or her peak.

All armies are serious about physical fitness as part of basic training, but it often stops there. In 1982 the U.S. Army got not only serious, but systematic about achieving and maintaining a high level of fitness throughout the force. That year saw the establishment of the U.S. Army Physical Fitness Training School and a change in philosophy concerning fitness training. Instead of training soldiers from the bottom up, the school trained them from the top down. It developed a four-week course to train Master Fitness Trainers, NCOs who would then return to their units and train other Master Fitness Trainers, who would in turn oversee the continuous physical training of the unit.

Within seven years physical fitness levels rose dramatically throughout the Army, and a new set of more rigorous standards were put in place. By the time of the First Gulf War, U.S. Army soldiers were the most physically fit in the world, a condition which remains true today. The current standards for physical fitness for line infantry in the U.S. Army are more rigorous than those for Special Forces troops in the Vietnam era.

It makes a difference. Here is how a French OMLT (Operational Mentoring Liaison Teams) infantryman described U.S. soldiers he served along side in Afghanistan:  Heavily built . . . they are all heads and shoulders taller than us and their muscles remind us of Rambo. Our frames are amusingly skinny to them – we are wimps, even the strongest of us – and because of that they often mistake us for Afghans.”

About the Author: The major landmarks in Frank's historical interests range from ancient Persia through the Crimean War, World War II, and the modern U.S. Armed Forces, with a lot of stops in between. Frank is fascinated by the unusual, the overlooked, and the surprising. He is the New York Times number one best-selling author of the Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) and he is currently writing an historical novel on Alexander's conquest of Persia – from the Persian point of view.

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